U.S. Confronts Wildlife Trafficking With Ivory Trade Ban

White House announces broad new strategy to combat global poaching

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Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The U.S. crushed six tons worth of confiscated ivory last November

Wildlife trafficking—the illegal killing of endangered animals and international trade in their parts—isn’t just a conservation problem. It’s a worldwide threat, one tied to global crime syndicates and international terrorism. So it’s good to see the U.S.—the second-biggest market for legal and illegal ivory after China— beginning to take the problem more seriously.

Today the White House issued a new National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, strengthening domestic and global enforcement of wildlife trade laws while working with international partners to combat the global poaching trade. Just how effective this new strategy is will depend on budgeting and enforcement, although it’s worth noting that last year President Obama issued a $10 million executive order to cut wildlife trafficking in Africa, and recently budgeted $45 million to foster international co-operation against poaching.

But the White House also announced a ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory, something that will have an immediate effect on the wildlife bloodbath. All commercial imports of ivory products will be prohibited, including antiques, with the exception of a few narrowly prescribed items. All commercial exports of ivory products will also be prohibited, with the exception of antiques, which must be more than 100 years old. Importantly, the onus will be on the importer or seller to prove that an antique really is an antique.

(MORE: After Syria, Hillary Clinton Talks Wildlife Trafficking at the White House)

Sales of any ivory products within the U.S. will also be severely restricted. Basically, if you want something made of ivory in the U.S.—and really, you shouldn’t—you’re going to be out of luck. “Today’s decision by the Administration is huge,” says Jeff Flocken, the North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It takes responsibility for the market that we do have an sends a message that we should all be tightening up our ivory laws in the face of wildlife trafficking.”

Of course, the major and growing market for ivory and other wildlife products is Asia, and especially China. So long as there is demand—and often lax enforcement of existing poaching and wildlife trafficking laws in African countries—criminals will do what’s needed to meet it. But there is a growing consensus that wildlife trafficking has to be stopped. The U.S., France and even China have been publicly destroying stockpiles of confiscated ivory to ensure that the products don’t make it onto the black market. And today saw the opening of the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, the highest level meeting ever on the issue. “We’re really encouraged by the number of steps we’ve seen taken by governments,” says Dr. Cristin Samper, the president of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “But the key issue is going to be implementation.” There’s a war being fought over the world’s endangered species, and good intentions won’t be enough to win it.

(MORE: Obama Moves to Fight Wildlife Trafficking in Africa. But the Real Work Is in Asia)